Saturday, April 24, 2010

Dieting Without Deprivation

As I indicated in the previous post on cardio, I am not an advocate of extreme low calorie diets. But the sad fact is, if you're a fairly lean 115 pounds and trying to even leaner, it's highly likely that you'll have to limit your calorie intake to somewhere between 1200 and 1500 calories per day on average even if you're quite active.

That's not a lot of calories. Occasional--or more than occasional--hunger is just about a given when you're eating this little, and hunger pangs are not much fun. Cravings too can be a problem, since when you're eating very little you really need to make sure that just about everything that goes into your mouth is on the nutritional A-list if you want to stay as healthy and keep having decent workouts. When all of a sudden you can't have that single piece of bacon from your partner's plate or that late-night-straight-from-the-carton spoonful of peanut butter cup ice cream, it can make dieting an agony.

Or not, depending on your frame of mind.

I have two main mental strategies for keeping myself on track. The first is to remind myself over and over again that I am not some sort of uniquely unfortunate, metabolically-cursed individual who has to work much harder than others to get that last bit of undesired body fat off. Losing the last few pounds is hard for everyone, and in fact I probably have an easier time of it than most women my age so really I have absolutely no business feeling sorry for myself. I'm just doing what needs to be done, nothing more or less.

The second is to cultivate a sense of abundance by trying nutritious new foods and preparation methods. Instead of thinking about the delicious foods that for now I can't have, I try to focus on all the yummy ones I can, and all the different ways I can serve them. I would honestly rather have a Cajun-spiced oven-baked sweet potato stick than a fast-food French fry. (Of course that probably makes me a weirdo, but nevermind.) Sushi is off limits for now because of the white rice, but I can still have sashimi at my favorite Japanese restaurant, or seared ahi tuna on a bed of greens with wasabi vinaigrette. I can have all kinds of vinegars and spices and mustards so my food is as flavorful as I like (which is very.) I can have most vegetables and quite a few fruits--apples, berries, melon, grapefruit, apricots, peaches and anything else that's lower on the glycemic index. I can have nuts and nut butters in moderation although most of my fat needs to come from fish oil and flaxseed. I can have poultry, fish, even red meat if I want it (which I never do but that's just me). For now low-fat dairy products are okay although I might need to reassess if the fat stops coming off. I can have oatmeal and brown rice and beans and winter squashes of all kinds, and I can have sweet potatoes and yams. I can broil and bake and roast and grill and saute and steam ... and I do :) I love to cook and that definitely helps because I don't mind putting in the preparation time. Chopping vegetables can be very meditative, at least until the chef's knife gets too close to your fingertips.

It's all a question of how you look at it.

A Girl's Gotta Do What A Girl's Gotta Do

And what this girl's gotta do to lose fat is cardio--lots of it.

That would be cardio in the pejorative sense, meaning something other than HIIT, Viking Warrior Conditioning with a kettlebell, bodyweight circuits, tabatas, barbell complexes and what have you. You know, the stuff that's trendy in fitness circles right now. All of which I am doing, by the way, but it's not enough to get me as lean as I want to be right now.

Here's the deal: to lose weight you have to create a calorie deficit. Duh, right? But here's the thing: I am small, and I am 47. For me to create a calorie deficit without dropping my calories below starvation level I need to be extremely active. But I also have to balance my need for activity with my need for recovery, and for me the strategy that seems to work best is to exercise almost daily, but at varying levels of intensity. At this point in my life it is a physical impossibility for me to do more than two or at most three true HIIT sessions per week. If I try to do more (and believe me, I've tried!) it becomes impossible for me to elevate my heart rate to anaerobic levels. It simply won't happen. And that means instead of doing three HIIT sessions a week I'm doing zero HIIT sessions and getting darned frustrated and grumpy in the process.

So for me the best option is to keep my HIIT sessions at three per week, and then on my non-HIIT days add in some longer, less intense cardio that won't interfere with my recovery from the HIIT. Depending on what my body seems to need I might make it a very light cardio day, meaning that I would be aiming to work mostly at 65-75% MHR (the infamous "fat burning zone." or as I prefer to think of it the aerobic base building zone), or I might make it a more moderate-intensity day where I would be staying mostly at 75-85% MHR. Which, by the way, is no walk in the park, especially if you sustain it for 45-60 minutes. I happen to believe that this kind of training (alternating light, medium, and high-intensity days) is optimal for improved cardiorespiratory fitness and performance ... and of course the concept will be quite familiar to those of you who've done Enter the Kettlebell!

I'm definitely doing something right, as my weight has dropped back down to 115 with no loss of strength--which I attribute to the fact that I haven't dropped my calories too low. In fact, even though I'm in calorie-deficit mode I achieved a personal best of 190 lbs last week on my conventional deadlift. (Yeah, I know, I mentioned it a couple of posts down. But you know what? I'm still disgustingly pleased with myself and plan to keep right on mentioning it until someone tells me to get over myself already :))

In case you are wondering, my fat loss goal at the moment is to drop another three pounds and reassess. I suspect that's the most I can lose without compromising my health, but we'll see. At 112 lbs I will not be physique-competitor lean, but since I have no plans to compete it doesn't make sense for me to shed fat that I would immediately have to regain to stay healthy. That's what competitors do, by the way--the smart ones, anyway. They diet down for their shows, then allow themselves to gain back as much fat as they need for health. Some even gain a little more than that :)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Interesting article about HRT in yesterday's New York Times Magazine

You can read it online here, and I highly recommend you do so if you're a woman of a certain age or anticipate becoming one at some point:

The gist of the article essentially is that there are some flaws in the Women's Health Initiative study from a while back that had to be stopped after three years because the study subjects seemed to be dropping like flies from stroke, breast cancer, and so forth, apparently due to the hormone replacement therapy they were receiving. Scary stuff, and as a result of that study most doctors no longer recommend hormone replacement therapy as a matter of course to their midlife female patients. In fact many don't recommend it at all for fear of malpractice suits.

And that may not be such a good thing for women, because if you take a closer look at the WHI study you'll see that all it really proves for sure is that estrogen-only HRT is an unacceptably risky proposition for post-menopausal women. None of the study subjects were still menstruating, and none were receiving progesterone in addition to estrogen.

The scary thing is that there've been no large-scale studies involving pre-menopausal women who're receiving a cocktail of estrogen and progesterone, so no one knows for sure whether this type of therapy is safe for this age group. Which might cause you to wonder: why on earth would any sensible woman be willing to risk it?

I can answer that one. Hot flashes suck, as do night sweats and disrupted sleep. But they're manageable. More problematic are the moments of homicidal rage alternating with suicidal despair. I'm trying to be funny here, but honestly there's nothing amusing about it. I suffered from clinical depression for years, and I know a thing or two about suicidal ideation. Once I started on SSRIs it went away ... until I turned 47. Paint it black, people. Paint it black.

Bear in mind, not every woman is going to have this issue. It may be limited to those fortunate few who are genetically predisposed to depression. But for us, some sort of combination HRT might conceivably make sense, at least for those of us who are not also at an unsually high risk of developing breast cancer.

I frankly don't know what makes the most sense for me. Nor do I know whether my doctor will even be willing to have a dialogue with me about it. But I've got a few more menstruating years in which to decide, and hopefully there will be more research that may help me with my risk-benefit analysis.

I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Lifting heavy stuff gives women a bulked-up and manly appearance....


This shot was taken in mid-December during a Nutcracker rehearsal. I am the second dancer from from the left, and as you can see I am no larger than the other ladies. Admittedly I am a couple of pounds heavier now, but I'm still no one's idea of bulky.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, I've never hit the weight room in a tutu. A leotard and tights, yes, but a tutu never. Tights actually rock when you're deadlifting because they give a little extra protection to your shins. Try it some time :)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Deadlift PB

190 lbs, kittens :)

Conventional style, not sumo, so I am especially pleased since the sumo dead has always been stronger for me.

Credit goes to my brilliant trainer friend Wendy Watkins who has been telling me I need to eat starches every now and again if I want to keep kicking butt in the gym. She is right, of course. She always is. And she may quote me :)

In all seriousness, this sort of thing is why it's always good to get input from your trainer friends. No one knows everything there is to know about fitness, and even those who know a whole heck of a lot may have trouble being objective about their own training. This is why, by and large, I get my best results with programs other people have created. When I write programs for myself I tend to gravitate toward the things I like to do, which may not be the things I need, so my results generally are not as good as when I do other people's programs, suitably tweaked to eliminate any useless or counterproductive (for me) exercises and add any assistance exercises I might need. I don't tweak too much, though, since I figure if extensive revisions are necessary I'm better off doing something else.

The program I'm on at the moment is the Summer Prep Plan from Precision Nutrition, in case you're curious. It's meant to be a fat loss program not a strength program but I've been very pleased with the strength gains I've made. For me it has worked less well as a fat loss program, but I think that will change in a couple of weeks when the workouts become more "metabolic" in nature.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Profile In Courage

Yesterday my friend Sarah Jones, HKC and breast cancer survivor, underwent a double mastectomy. I'm happy to report that the surgery went well, and best of all her lymph nodes appear to be cancer-free, meaning that the surgery didn't need to be as extensive as it might otherwise have been and she may not need to follow up with chemotherapy. This is important because it means she will have a shorter recovery time and be able to get back to her training that much sooner, with less risk of lymphedema.

Sarah, in case you don't know her from Twitter and her blogs and, is a pretty amazing person. After narrowly surviving an automobile accident in which she sustained irreparable nerve damage, she undertook a grueling course of physical therapy rather than accept her doctors' prognosis that she would never regain full use of both hands. This led to a newfound interest in physical fitness, and a desire to share with other women the benefits of resistance training. She became ACSM-certified, then opened her own women's bootcamp business in summer 2009.

Somewhere along the way she also became enamored of kettlebells and the Hardstyle method of training popularized by Pavel Tsatsouline and Dragon Door. The fact that Sarah stuck with kettlebells in spite of the nerve damage and hand pain to which she is subject says a lot about her. As you know if you work with kettlebells, grip is key -- and if you're subject to pain in your hands it's hard to get that part right. But she persevered, and in September 2009 she was rewarded for all her hard work with the HKC designation, meaning that she is certified to teach the fundamentals of Hardstyle kettlebell training to her lucky clients. She is North Carolina's first-ever HKC, and possibly still its only one.

Always seeking to add to her knowledge base, she began preparing in earnest for the grueling RKC weekend and was on track to be ready by late spring 2010 when she was diagnosed with multiple malignancies in her right breast. Although the left breast proved to be cancer free her doctors recommended a double mastectomy as a preventative measure. While awaiting her surgery she continued to train, only taking time off when necessitated by the series of biopsies she was required to undergo.

I am in awe of her strength and courage. To have overcome so much, and to be so close to her goal of becoming an RKC, only to have the possibility snatched away at least temporarily, and in so terrifying a way ... I don't know how I would have handled it. Not with as much grace as Sarah, that's for sure. From the beginining of her ordeal she never once allowed herself to dwell on the possibility that her cancer diagnosis was anything more than a detour on her path.

And, thank God, yesterday she was proved to be right. Very likely she is cancer-free now, and with God's grace will remain so for the rest of her life.

She is also 's Comrade of the Week. Check out the brief profile, then visit her blogs and to learn more about this amazing woman in her own words.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

How's Your Record-Keeping?

No, this has nothing to do with your Very Important Tax Documents, although I strongly recommend keeping careful track of those as well if for no other reason than that it is conducive to marital harmony.

(A typical conversation chez Tactical Ballerina the second weekend in April: "Honey, where did you put that thing we got from the Monetta Fund?" "Which thing?" "You know, it came in that big envelope. Last September, or maybe it was October." "Oh, that. I thought you had it." And so forth. We have been doing this in one form or another for 20 years now.)

No, this is about your training. You need to be keeping records there as well, or you'll never know for sure whether you're making progress or not.

Okay, that's not completely true. If you're a complete novice it's generally easy to see whether you're on the right track, simply because if you're new to training and on any kind of a decent program you can expect to make progress by leaps and bounds. Still, even at this phase of training it's good to get in the habit of recording your workouts since later on your gains will come in much smaller increments, and unless you keep track you may not always be sure whether you're really gaining strengthspeed, etc., or not. This is assuming that improved performance is your goal. If your goal is more aesthetic you'll still want to record your workouts, but you'll also need to take photos periodically to make sure your muscles are developing in the way you want and/or that you're not losing too much lean mass as you shed fat.

I frankly deplore the necessity of doing this. My own progress photos invariably make me cringe. Have I mentioned that my ribcage basically sits on top of my hip bones? Seriously, I have the world's shortest waist. I'm practically a mutant. Thing is, it's helpful to be reminded of this stuff because otherwise I am in danger of forgetting, for instance, that certain exercises, such as weighted crunches and side bends, are probably not the best for me strictly from a cosmetic standpoint. (I don't care for them from a functional standpoint either but concede their usefulness if hypertrophy of the outer core musculature is desired, which it often is, especially at the start of swimsuit season.)

But, anyway, I suck it up and do it, and you should too. I recommend taking at least 3 photos, one from the front, one from the side, and one from the back. You can flex or not, your choice, but try to do the same thing each time you update so you can compare more easily. If you're preparing for a physique competition you may want to take photos as often as every week when you're in the dieting-down phase, but otherwise once a month is more than adequate.

It's painful, at least to a pathologically vain person such as myself, but it's a whole lot less painful than unwittingly spending months on a program that's not getting me closer to my goals, or that may even be counterproductive.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Goddess-In-Progress Training Plan

Okay, I'm already a goddess. And so are you. Unless of course you are a guy, in which case you are a god. Really. If you care about your health, if you eat right most of the time, if you exercise regularly and with some intensity and commitment, you are already as fabulous as you ever need to be.

But this isn't about that.

This is about taking it to that next level where even the people who don't particularly like you have to admit you look darned good. This is about sticking it to your evil ex and your catty sister-in-law and all those people in high school who used to kick sand in your face. This is about proving to the world that while fertility may decline with age hottness endures, and that just because you're over 45 it doesn't mean you're past your sell-by date.

Now for the specifics:

If, like me, you are a woman in mid-life who is in very good shape but not quite as lean and sculpted as she used to be, the problem very likely is hormones. I'm assuming, of course, that nothing else about your training regimen and diet has changed, which may not be the case. Mid-life women may be dealing with aging parents, teenage children, failing marriages, job stress ... all sorts of things that can impact a woman's time, energy and commitment to training. In my own case I've had some of that, but really not too much so I'm inclined to think feral hormones are the main reason for the upward creep in my body fat percentage

So what do you do when, like me, you've hit the hormonal wall? You commit to working harder. Sorry about that, folks. I wish there was another answer, I truly do. But there isn't. So deal with it. Really. There's no point in shaking your fist at the heavens and saying "It's not fair." It isn't, but lamenting the unfairness of it all gets you exactly nowhere. If, like me, you're a person of fairly average genetic gifts you've probably already figured that one out. Some people build muscle more easily than others, and some people lean out more easily. Some do both, and I hate them as much as you do :)

The good news is: a person of average genetic gifts who's on a good program can get results that equal or surpass those of a genetically gifted person who chooses to coast on his or her gifts. But what do I mean by "a good program"? It must include some intense resistance training and some high-intensity interval training. It must include a pretty strict diet with plenty of protein and very controlled carb intake. Beyond that, it's hard to be specific because what one individual needs to "take it to the next level" may not be the same as what another needs. So much of it depends on what you've been doing.

In my own case, I've been doing a lot of metabolic resistance training. Supersets and circuits and kettlebells, oh my. Great stuff, and for years it kept me as lean as I cared to be. But eventually it stopped working, as even an excellent training program will generally do if you don't change it up from time to time. Let me reiterate: there was nothing "wrong" with what I was doing. In fact, according to Alwyn Cosgrove's "hierarchy of fat loss," what I'd been doing was the best thing I could do for fat loss. But for ME it was no longer "best" because I'd been doing it for too darned long and my body had gotten used to it.

So I looked elsewhere on the hierarchy, and what I came up with is a regimen that combines more traditional bodybuilding-type resistance training, some high intensity interval cardio, and also a certain amount of steady state cardio at lower intensity. It's way more time consuming than what I'd been doing, but frankly that's what the situation calls for. Again, I'm not talking about what's necessary for basic health and fitness. I'm talking about taking it a step or three beyond that.

My diet hasn't changed too much, other than that I've cut my calories a bit and also begun paying even more attention to nutrient timing. The fact is, fat loss is a catabolic process while building muscle is anabolic, so you can't do both at once. But what you can do is try for microcycles where you flood your body with nutrients at a time when it's best positioned to take advantage of them, i.e, during and immediately following your workouts, then cut way back at other times so your body draws on its stores of excess fat for energy. In other words, at any given point during the day you're either burning fat or building muscle, but over the course of the day you're doing both. Theoretically, anyway :)

And again, none of this is worth bothering with unless you're already quite fit and lean. The further you are from your goal, the easier it is to get results. Just eat less and move more, and you'll be fine. Don't make yourself crazier than you must.

Regrettably, I myself would appear to be at a point in my training where I must become a raving lunatic to get the results I want. But I can do that. In all honesty I've never been all that disciplined about my training, but lunacy comes naturally to me :)